Personally Speaking

A teacher I much admire once advised never to take anything personally. This is excellent advice in theory, but tricky sometimes in practice. Artists of all stripes seem particularly vulnerable to taking much of what they experience personally. To create you must invest your own personal perception into the work, and so how not to take the rejection of that work personally? The answer is both simple and complex. The simple answer is, you don’t. When you find yourself taking something personally you remind yourself there is never any reason to take anything personally and you don’t. Sounds obnoxiously pragmatic, but in the end, that is what you are doing.

The complex part comes in unearthing all the ways in which you are taking things personally. Like any discipline, the more you practice, the more levels you understand there are to master. But the best way to begin the practice is to choose one thing, one remark, one slight, one rejection and decide not to take it personally. Feel what it is like to put it down. Start there, and see what else you can set down.

It’s a life-long training, but one worth the effort. Consider, for instance, how often what you say should be taken personally by someone else? That is, how often should someone else feel poorly about himself or herself because of something you’ve done or said? The answer is never, isn’t it? We entertain the fantasy that by making someone else feel bad they will finally come around to behaving in a way that doesn’t bother us—but we know the truth of it. No one ever changes for anyone else.

For a writer, I consider this a critical survival tool. Too much is going to be said about what you have written, no matter where you are in the publishing ladder, once you decide to show your stuff to another human being. You cannot be tethered to the reviews and rejections and the editorial letters and all the rest. It will exhaust and depress you. True, this practice asks you to give up some of the highs of praise, but it is a worthy exchange. From that perch you only have a better view of the pit of despair that is taking criticism personally.

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